Read this article in EN

Should family life be a zero-sum game?

February 08, 2017

“In Russia, a husband is now allowed to beat his wife”. What sounds like a piece of anti-Russian propaganda that could have been made up by “Russophobes”, is nevertheless a fact: Last month, Russia’s State Duma approved an amendment that removes domestic abuse from the criminal code, giving Russian husbands a free hand to attack family members, as long as it is not reported more than once per year and does not result in injuries that require hospitalisation. The justification? It will help build “strong families”, Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin explained.

Not surprisingly, the story about Russia decriminalising wife-beating spurred negative attention in international media, with headlines such as “Fury at Russian move to soften domestic violence law” (The Guardian), “After violence law: Russian women strike back” (Bild) and “Domestic abuse: Why Russia believes the first time is not a crime” (BBC).

Pro-Kremlin outlets in Western countries employed various techniques to counter this story. On Sputnik Germany, for instance, we could not find any reference to the Duma  vote or the legal changes. Sputnik France delivered a very long defence of the legal amendments in a comment, which insists that domestic violence is still penalised, even if it is no more considered a crime. The comments of the French audience, who calculated that domestic violence is about 40 times more prevalent in Russia than in France, showed that they were not convinced by this answer.

Russia Today interviewed Russian Senator Elena Mizulina, the author of the amendment. She insisted that the amendment was a purely technical matter, saying “the amendment had been included in the bill silently in the hope that no one would notice. It was thanks to the internet that Russian parents and the public in general had discovered the changes”. In addition, Mizulina accused Russian NGOs of deliberately exaggerating the problems with violence against Russian women, in order to obtain financial support from abroad for their activities – a part of the Russian authorities’ traditional conspiracy suspicion against the West, as reflected in the infamous law on “foreign agents”.

How is the acceptance of violence in the family tied to the overall narrative about power in Russian public opinion?

As pointed out in some media, the new amendment is in line with the fact that street violence is normally not treated as a criminal, but instead a civil offense in Russian legislation. In other words, the amendment should not only to be seen from the gender perspective and as a form of traditionalist acceptance of male dominance inside the family; it also reflects a high degree of acceptance of violence as such. Add to that a very high level of corruption, which leaves little trust in the legal system, and the idea that might makes right can become more of a norm in Russia than in other European countries.
How can we explain the spread of tolerance to violence in Russia? The dominating state-controlled media do not exactly challenge the idea that the use of violent force is acceptable. On the contrary, every night we learn from Russian news programmes and talk shows that it is acceptable when Russia uses violent force against its Ukrainian neighbour and when Russia supports the Syrian government in its attacks on its own population. And polls show that ordinary Russians think of international relations as a zero-sum game.